A long, long time ago, when sabremetrics were just a twinkle in Ford Frick’s glass eye, the legend was that the team that held first place on the 4th of July was a good bet to win the pennant. I doubted then, and really doubt now, that this proved true very often but it gave everyone an excuse to review the first half of the baseball season and to speculate madly on what might be the final outcome. Now, of course, we have six first place teams and several others vying for wild card spots but still, July 4 is really closer to the halfway point than what most of the media use, which is the All Star break.
The ghost of Curt Flood was stumbling around my bedroom last night and he was bitching up a storm. It wasn’t about the standings, though. It was about the game within the game that seemingly every ESPN and Fox baseball announcer or color man or whatever they are called these days feels compelled to play: Who Is Buying and Who Is Selling? Whereas when Curt and I were young pups the average fan identified more with players and managers, it seems the fans today, or at least the ones these TV and radio guys are talking to, don’t want to play baseball so much as play owner or general manager. Is the team under .500 and loaded with big contracts? Sell! Is the team healthy and playing good ball but just a starting pitcher or slugging outfielder away from the playoffs? Buy! I realize that all of the players are very well paid these days so that, unlike you or me, they can pack up and move to a new locale with their families without fear of financial and emotional ruin but still….it does sound a little too much like a slave auction at times and these are real human beings, not chattel. By the way, Curt’s ghost wanted me to pass the word that his book, or rather Brad Snyder’s book about him, A Well Paid Slave, is still worth reading. Where was I? Oh, yeah, the halfway point.
In the American League, the most startling development has been the consistent winning ball played by the Houston Astros. Many knowledgeable people say that they are for real, and the success of their young pitchers cannot be denied, so that’s fun. I still believe that the Angels will emerge on top in the West division but Houston is fun. The Rangers are doing considerably better than expected but, as usual, the pitching is a bit thin. The Mariners and Athletics have been disappointing the first half but (don’t sell!) they should both play better in the second half, or at least the A’s should. It’s nice to see both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder having good seasons again in this division.
Kansas City has been my choice as best in league, and so far they look that way, although not as much as All Star voting would indicate. And, yeah, that’s another thing that presages the fall of the empire! What’s with 35 votes per idiot? Can we extend that to the general elections as well? Think of all the dough the triple chinned bloviators could raise then! But the Royals have pitching and defense and hitting and speed with just a pinch of longball and the Tigers have just taken a big hit with Miguel Cabrera down and Justin Verlander looking like Charlie Brown. The Twins are the new fun team of this division but there ain’t enough there.
There sat the New York Yankees in first place on the 4th of July but I’m sticking to my belief that Baltimore will prevail in the end. Boston looks like they have a pulse still but they gave away too much pitching last year and haven’t really replaced Jacoby Ellsbury yet. Toronto has a great lineup but…I like the Orioles.
In the National League, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington all hold first place as of July 4 and all three could very well stay right there the rest of the season. I was just to the point of not worrying about the defending champion Giants a week ago and then they lost seven straight. I think they will not drop from contention, but San Francisco has definite issues with shaky health among outfielders and bullpen pitchers that have been around long enough to be more predictable than reliable. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have been considerably less than perfect, although Kershaw and Greinke keep them alive almost by themselves.
St.Louis was 6 games ahead of Pittsburgh July 4, but the Pirates have the time and the skills to catch and pass the Cardinals. Mike Matheny has done well managing the Cards without Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, and others but time will tell. This may once again be the strongest division in the bigs. Advice to Milwaukee and Cincinnati: don’t sell! Advice to Chicago: stay patient, but stay away from overpriced guys like Jon Lester. This division promises the most fireworks (inadvertent July 4 reference) to come.
Washington held a modest 4.5 game lead on the New York Mets July 4 and one would expect that to gradually increase as the summer rolls along, but the Nationals have shown a peculiar ability to play down to the rest of the division’s level and the they have had injury problems as well. Atlanta has not been the pushover many people thought they would be while Miami threatened to get into it before Giancarlo Stanton’s unfortunate injury.
In other words, who knows? That’s what makes it fun.
Individual half season highlights have included Cabrera and Fielder’s high batting averages despite the obvious lack of leg hits, Mike Trout’s combination of speed, power, and defense that reminds us of young Mickey Mantle, Bryce Harper putting up numbers finally equal to the hype, Stanton’s incredible 27 home runs despite his playing home games in what is definitely a pitcher’s home ballpark, and a slew of spectacular pitching performances by the likes of Max Scherzer, Garret Cole, Chris Heston, Sonny Gray and several others. One last gripe for now, though–let’s put a moratorium on rating pitchers’ strikeouts per nine innings until they start pitching nine innings again. How about strikeouts per six innings?